According to critiques, secularism is more exclusionary than emancipative. French secularism (laïcité) and its current relation to Muslims is widely considered as the paradigmatic example. But Secularists often claim that such exclusions are not “really secular” and distort the truth of secularism. Their claim is given credit by the attacks against the idea of secularization emanating from “fundamentalist” religious discourses, some of which are violent indeed. However, seen from outside the Eurocentric West, this defense of secularism would be more convincing if Secularists displayed a greater capacity at criticizing their own tradition.

Three orders of questions will be envisaged during the debate: genealogical, philosophical, and political.

First, we examine secularism’s hegemonies and exclusionary forms. Thus, to which extent is French secularism structured by France’s colonial relation to Islam and Muslims? To which extent is this secularism secretly theological?

Secondly, we reflect about normative implications of the critique of secularism. If secularism is hegemonic, should one dismiss secularism, or redefine it? What would it mean to “dechristianize” or “decolonize” secularism? And, if there does exist a “complicity” between certain specific religious traditions and Western secularism (deriving from the Enlightement), which is the way to dialectically transform the situation: through inventing a “new secularism”? or thinking “beyond good and evil”, i.e. inventing their common Other?

These questions lead to the political realm, in terms of present and future institutions – particularly the question of the Nation-State. Indeed, most critiques analyze secularism’s contradictions as characteristics of the secular State, inherited from its imperial past and build into its constitution. And most defenses emphasize questions of rights and ideals of emancipation. Should secularism, therefore, make sense beyond the modern State in order to become fully emancipative and self-critical?  Or is it primarily a matter of deconstructing the hegemonic articulation of law, power and exclusion in its historical figures?



(Research and Teaching Fellow/Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University)

Talal ASAD

(Distinguished Professor/CUNY)


(Visiting Professor/Columbia University)

More information on the project can be found on The Immanent Frame.